Learning to be Good

A number of years ago, this precious friend shared her personal story with me, and we worked on this article together.  Learning to Be Good is a true account of her troubled early life and how eventually she found peace with God. She has given me permission to share this story.

 LEARNING TO BE GOOD . . .By Patrice Carlson (Not her real name)

The familiar smell of booze hung heavy in the air of our tiny second-floor apartment.  I was three-and-a-half years old and hungry, but Mama was gone again, and I didn’t know when she would return.

My two-year-old sister and I scrounged through the empty metal breadbox, hoping to find a crust or a cracker to tide us over.  Eventually our mother showed up with yet another man we’d never seen, and she sent us out to play.

Once in a while she gave each of us a couple of pennies to go to the store for candy.  One day the store owner took me into the back room and sexually molested me.  He said he’d bring a dime to my house if I promised not to tell.  I learned to keep secrets at an early age.  But the experience made an indelible impression on me, and even today, when I occasionally see a man who resembles that child-molester, I remember what he did to me in the back room of the candy store.

When my relatives decided our mother could no longer care for us, the shuttle from one house to another began.  Sometimes my sister and I were placed in the same home, and sometimes not.

For a while we lived with my brawling father.  As he dropped us off at yet another home, he’d warn, “Behave yourselves, or they won’t take care of you.”

Finally our Aunt Mamie took my sister, but she didn’t want me.  I went to Aunt Opal’s, but they already had two children and another on the way.  Her husband Sam didn’t want me, and they couldn’t afford to keep one more child.  With each move I felt that I’d failed the test.  I hadn’t been good enough.

I attended kindergarten at a Catholic parochial school.  I’ll never forget a drawing I made in class one day.  Because I didn’t think I had done a good enough job, when the nun passed back our papers, I pretended it didn’t belong to me.  She insisted on giving it back to me, but I stubbornly refused to take ownership.  It wasn’t good enough.

Just before my sixth birthday, my relatives had a little family party for me.  I didn’t realize it was really a goodbye party.

A couple of days later, on my birthday, I was taken to church.  There a woman looked me over, then nodded.  At the end of the service, she took me home with her to the house that would become my home until I grew up.

Things changed drastically for me from that day on.  For the first time ever, I sat down to regular meals.  For the first time I had my own bed to sleep in.  Life should have been wonderful now that I didn’t have to forage for food or sleep on a park bench, but it wasn’t.

I saw my birth mother only once after this.  She stopped by the following year to leave a gift for my seventh birthday.  She was a stranger to me by then, and after she left I opened the package to find a pair of silky pajamas.

“Throw it away!” my foster mother exclaimed.  “We don’t want anything she has touched.”

On the outside, we looked like the perfect family as we sat in the pew each Sunday, well dressed and pretending to be happy.  I felt sure everyone was thinking, “What a wonderful couple they are to take in an orphan!”  But at home it quickly became clear that this childless couple would never love me.

“You took her, you take care of her,” my new “father” yelled at my foster mother.  Tension hung in the air like smog, and I cringed as the sound of their loud arguments carried through the walls of my basement bedroom after I went to bed at night.

“Stop it!” I’d cry out, but neither of them listened to me.

In the novel, Anna Karenina, Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Neither my anxiety-ridden mother nor my uncaring father was equipped to give love to a lonely, sensitive child who had been rejected far too many times.  But my new family’s unhappiness became just another one of those secrets I never dared to share with anyone.

At least food was plentiful there, but as my insecurities mounted, I ate to try to feed the hunger in my soul.  By sixth grade, my weight had ballooned to 200 pounds.  At school, the other kids chanted, “Fatty, fatty, two-by-four, can’t get through the kitchen door…”  Clearly, Fatty Patty wasn’t good enough at school either.

In my alienation, I longed for love, but no one seemed to notice or care.  I had casual friendships in high school, but I never felt I truly belonged there, either.  I’d erected a wall to protect myself from the hurts that plagued me wherever I went.  I felt fractured in a place no one else could see, but there was nobody to confide in.

Always, I tried hard to be good, fearing that if I failed, I might once again land out on the streets.  I knew what it was like to sleep on a park bench, and I didn’t want to repeat the experience.

The issue of adoption never came up, and not until I was in high school did my parents ask whether I would like to take their last name.  But by this time the offer seemed pointless–too little, too late.  I felt bitter and angry.  “I’ve gotten along this far without it,” I replied.  “I don’t need it now.”

From early childhood, I longed to become a nurse when I grew up.  My foster parents thought I should be a secretary instead.  Once I’d graduated from high school, I never asked them for a dime, and they never offered to provide any financial assistance with my college tuition.  I attended Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis for two years, and my parents charged me rent to stay at home while I worked myself through college.

During this time I met a man unlike any I had ever known.  He was kind and gentle, and I knew he was a gift from God.  I had never been kissed until I dated Dave.  He became the love of my life, and incredibly, he loved me for who I was.  But he, too, would be taken away from me for a time.  Six months after we married, he was drafted into the Army and shipped overseas.  While he was gone, I earned my nursing degree.

My new mother-in-law baked me a birthday cake—the first I’d ever had in my life.  She won my heart that day, with her unconditional acceptance of me.

My adult relationship with the people who raised me looked cordial on the outside, but remained inwardly strained.  Yet I felt bound to this couple by a golden thread.  They had taken me in when no one else wanted me, when I had no other place to go.  And even though they could never give me what I craved most, I knew I owed them a debt.

After our marriage, Dave and I went through the motions of including my parents in our family life.  I determined that our three daughters would never lack for physical affection, nor would they ever have to question whether they were truly loved.  I masked the scars from my unloving childhood, and, vowed that at least in this area of my life, I would work hard to be good enough.

My career as a nurse included 25 years of demanding, but mostly fulfilling, work at a nursing home.  During those busy years, I often took care of everyone’s needs but my own.  I had little time to process my troubled childhood, and sometimes I didn’t recognize what was normal and what was not.  I knew what I hated, but not what I liked.

One day at the nursing home, a patient physically assaulted me.  My supervisor asked why I didn’t defend myself.  I’d learned to survive, I told her, but I had also been taught to be good.  Always, even as an adult, I harbored the fear that if I wasn’t good, the consequences could be dire.

In the meantime, my foster father had died, and my aging foster mother became increasingly frail.  I invited her to live with us, but she staunchly insisted on staying in her own home, even as she approached her one hundredth birthday.  Always striving to be the good daughter, I called daily to check on her, and made multiple trips each week to take care of her lawn, help with the cleaning and grocery shopping, and run errands for her.  I continued to work at the nursing home, but, taxed by the growing demands of my mother, I felt constantly exhausted.

Finally, after she’d turned 100, I took my mother to the doctor, who confirmed my conclusion that, for both our sakes, she needed to be placed in a nursing home.  This decision triggered venomous accusations of betrayal.  She lashed out at me with an unprecedented barrage of name calling and verbal abuse for my having “put her into the home.”

One day when I came to visit her, she launched into a tirade of complaints about what an awful daughter I was.  She was so angry she almost hissed.  After she had called me the most terrible names, I gathered my courage and said, “It looks like you’re not very glad to see me today, so I’m leaving.”

For the first time ever I showed my back to her, but it was one of the most liberating things I have ever done.  I’d been running on empty for a long time, trying to meet the needs of my family, my patients, and my mother.  Now my years of loyalty to her seemed to count for nothing.

I returned to her nursing home room several days later.  It was a beautiful October day.  I wheeled her outside, and we basked in the warmth of the sun.  Something was different about her that day.  For the first time in a long time, she seemed at peace.  No more wrangling, no more friction.  A few days later, she died at the age of 101.

After her death, years of cumulative stress drained all my physical and emotional energy.  I began to wonder who I really was.  I felt that I’d never known.  Not until I retired from nursing a short while later did I finally feel free to search for my authentic self.

As I journaled and prayed and took time to rest and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, this journey opened new doors for me.  I reestablished contact with my long-estranged sister, and I met with some cousins I hadn’t seen since childhood.  I began exploring some of my long-dormant creative interests—gardening, painting, sewing, quilting—and found all of them restorative.

I had committed my life to Jesus Christ years earlier, and throughout my high school years I had clung tenaciously to Scriptures from the Gospel of John that speak of comfort and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Now during this new chapter in my life, I had time to be quiet and absorb what God wanted to say to me.

Though scars remain, I have come to terms with many hurts of the past.  I’m blessed to be able to drink in God’s grace, and to extend forgiveness to those who hurt me.  I can now rejoice in the fact that in God’s eyes, because of His Son, not only am I good enough, I am the apple of His eye–loved unconditionally by the One who matters most.

“The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”                                              Zephaniah 3:17

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